8.2 Common Child Problems 1: Fears, Siblings
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COMMON CHILD PROBLEMS
This section describes the four most common Child problems that parents tend to take over: fears, sibling/peer conflicts, school issues, and parents’ concerns about children’s friends.
When dealing with fears, it is particularly important to start where children are in the problem-solving process. They are usually stuck at the first step, being overwhelmed with feelings. Some fears are valid and helpful. For example, a fear of heights or mean dogs will cause people to be extra careful. When fears start to control people, they need to look at what’s really going on and learn how to take control of their fears.
Children often have imaginary fears, “There’s a gorilla in my closet!” Don’t tell children their fears are silly or to simply stop feeling that way. To them, it is very real. You can notice and name the feeling without agreeing that the imaginary object exists. “It must be scary to think there’s a gorilla in your closet.” After naming the fear (B1), you can ask a helpful question (B2), “I’m going to turn on the light. Can you show me what looked like a gorilla and where you saw it?”
If children have a hard time talking about their fears, have them draw a picture or act out their fears with play characters. If they have fears that are caused by something that has really happened to them, they may benefit from seeing a therapist. Young children are best helped by play therapists, who help children express and work through their emotional issues through play.
When dealing with common fears, ask helpful questions, to reveal children’s thoughts and beliefs. Give them factual information to explain anything they misunderstand. Tell children that they have control over their thoughts and feelings. Teach them how to talk themselves through their fears. Examine possible options that help children take control of the situation and calm their fears. If they practice and rehearse their response, they can use these skills to face their fears.
A Personal Story. Several years ago, I was helping my mother sort through old toys in her attic. We found my old Raggedy Ann doll, scorched and brown, which triggered my earliest memory, a childhood nightmare.
I was sleeping in my crib when an evil witch appeared in my room. She commanded me, “Say you hate your brother!” “No!” I said. She set a corner of my room on fire. She continued this pattern, “Say you hate your father . . . mother . . .” Each time, my fear intensified and I hesitated longer, but still said “No.” Each time, she set another part of my room on fire. By now, the entire room was in flames and she was leaning over my crib, pointing her fire wand at me! She yelled, “Say you hate God!” I knew if I agreed to do this she would set me on fire and I would die. I hesitated, knowing I would be lying if I agreed, closed my eyes and prepared to die as I yelled, “NO!” She fired her wand, but only hit the Raggedy Ann doll I had in my arms. I woke up as the smoke cleared. I looked around my room and everything was exactly as it was before she had appeared—except my doll. My Raggedy Ann was truly scorched from head to toe. I was very upset, but was too young to tell my parents about the dream. By the time I was old enough to speak well, I had put the dream in the back of my mind.
When I found the doll in the attic, I told my mother (for the first time) about the nightmare. She had no logical explanation for the burns on the doll’s body. Suddenly, this memory became a puzzle piece that finally explained my lifelong fear of sleeping alone. As a child, my parents used a pleasant, loving bedtime routine. Nevertheless, I hid under my blankets, slept with the door open, and kept a night light on. I slept on the floor with the dog, outside my parents’ closed bedroom door, since this was the closest I could get to them at night. I’d sneak back into my own bed before they awoke. I slept with a doll until I was 12 and snuggled with pillows until I was married. Although my adult mind has rationalized that there is no reason to fear sleep, I still have many of these deeply ingrained habits. The memory of the nightmare helped this all make sense.
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If you have goose bumps after reading this story, you can only imagine how freaked out I was as a young child. Take my word for it, children’s “imaginary” fears can be very real to them. If they can remember and tell us their fears, we can help children work through them. Fearful children need our reassurance and understanding, not pressure to “grow up” and to “stop being so childish.” They’ll only stop being afraid when they feel secure and more in control of their thoughts and feelings. We can best help them by using the F-A-X process.
The best way to increase sibling conflicts is to interfere in unhelpful ways. Some parenting advice says to let children work out problems by themselves. If children have never learned healthy conflict resolution skills, this approach can result in harmful, unfair resolutions. On the other hand, if parents always get involved in sibling conflicts, children get the payoff of our attention and don’t learn how to resolve conflicts independently. Here are some common unhelpful responses to avoid:
HEALTHY PARENTING GOALS FOR SIBLINGS
Many parents want their children to love each other and be best friends. We can’t make children do either of these. What we can do is teach them how to get along with people who are different from them and live or work together peacefully. As children learn how to work through their differences respectfully, they usually have fewer sibling/peer conflicts and naturally develop feelings of friendship and love for other children. The healthy goals for parents of siblings are to help children learn how to do several things:
*There are helpful variations of these responses—under certain circumstances and if they are presented in specific ways. As we detail sibling/peer conflicts, we learn these variations.
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WHEN TO INTERVENE
If we are unsure whether to step into a sibling conflict, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
- one child being emotionally or physically hurt?
- Is their problem disrupting the entire household?
- Does this problem keep coming up and they can’t seem to resolve it?
HOW TO INTERVENE
Sibling and peer conflicts are always Child problems. When the conflicts involve a SHARP RV issue, they are combination Child/Parent problems. In these C/P sibling conflicts, “keep the ball in their court” as much as possible. Only use the Parent Problem Toolbox to address the parent’s part of the problem. Once you’ve interrupted the dangerous behavior, shift back to the Child Problem Toolbox to guide the children as they resolve their conflict.
The next step depends on the children’s ages and their skill at problem solving.
When conflicts continue or the same issue keeps coming up, take the time to guide the children through a more thorough problem-solving session, using the Problem-Solving Worksheet. Mediation applies each step of the F-A-X process, back-and-forth, to the two parties. We can use this process with any two people: siblings, children and their friends or two adults.
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- Allow each child a turn to share his or her feelings and side of the conflict. Write each child’s feelings and concerns on the worksheet, then read them aloud to make sure they are accurate. Allow differences of perceptions and opinions.
- Let each child respond to the other child’s comments. At this step, they can add new information or state their disagreement. Be careful not to get sidetracked with debates about who did what. Quickly move to the next step.
- Summarize the problem in your own words, trying to focus on the real issues of the conflict.
- Brainstorm solutions. Write down all ideas. Do not evaluate the ideas, yet. Don’t label the idea as “his” or “hers.” Once an idea is suggested, it doesn’t belong to anyone. It is simply one idea. This prevents hurt feelings if the idea is rejected or someone says “See, I was right!”
- Evaluate the ideas, asking e
- Decide on the solutions everyone can live with. If discipline is necessary, wait to discuss those options at this step. There are several problems if you discipline earlier:
Children think we don’t respect their feelings or understand their perspective.
• Children misinterpret the discipline as punishment, because it seems like a reaction, not a planned response.
• The parent has taken over the problem.
• One or both children will resent you and the other sibling for getting them in trouble.
- Encourage them to try the solution for a trial period.
- Follow-up later or remind them of their agreement if the problem comes up again. Ask if the agreement is working. Let them know you will mediate, but they are responsible for solving their own problems. Encourage them to try resolving problems on their own, before bringing them to you.
It may seem like the mediation process has too many steps, but each step teaches important skills and has specific benefits. As we mediate more often, the process flows more quickly and smoothly and children come up with more ideas. As we see their skills increasing, we can stay more on the fringes of their conflicts. We need to be patient as they move from where they are now to being independent problem-solvers. After awhile, we can streamline the process for younger children, more skilled children, or when we need to solve problems on-the-run. Our ultimate goal is to say “I have confidence the two of you can work this out,” believe it, and walk away. When children know we will not take sides and referee fights, but put the responsibility back in their court, they are less likely to use us in inappropriate ways.
COMMON SIBLING ISSUES
Many parenting resources offer helpful suggestions for dealing with sibling conflicts. Few actually tell parents specifically what to say, because there are so many issues siblings fight over. While the following suggestions still might not cover every possible sibling issue, we can apply these basic suggestions in similar situations.
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Most of the time, my children’s sibling conflicts boil down to this issue, but rarely do they realize this is the core of their problem. I will use a problem-solving session with my children to show how sibling mediation actually sounds as the discussion flows through the nine steps.
1. Set a time to discuss the problem.
My kids had been arguing more than usual. When this fight occurred, it was more aggressive and hurtful and I could no longer ignore it. Both children were so angry they couldn’t think, speak, or listen. I told them both to go somewhere alone to calm down and meet me in the living room when they were ready to resolve the problem. Amber, four, was ready within several minutes and sat with me in the living room. We waited for Chris, who was eight, and took much longer to calm down. When I heard him playing, I said that if he was calm enough to play in his room, he was ready to join us.
|Me:||The two of you have been fighting a lot more lately and it seems you can’t work things out on your own. I want you both to have a chance to explain what is going on and see if you two can agree on a solution.|
I can tell you are both very angry. Amber, can you tell me your side of what happened.
|Amber:||Chris pushed me . . .|
|Chris:||(interrupting) No I didn’t! (I realized I had neglected to set the ground rules.)|
|Amber:||. . . and he called me a baby.|
|Me:||(I wrote all this down.) Anything else? (Amber shook her head, “No.” I turned to Chris.) Okay. Chris? What about you?|
|I did push her, but only after she tried to grab the remote control while I was watching TV. I only called her a baby because she made me mad. (I asked him, “What else bothers you?”) She bites me and doesn’t stop when I tell her to. She calls me names, sticks her tongue out, screams in my face, and goes in my room without permission. (I quickly wrote each complaint as he spoke.)|
|Me:||Amber is there anything you want to say about what Chris said?|
|Chris:||I don’t mind playing sometimes. It’s just that she mostly bothers me when I first come home from school.|
|Me:||Okay. (I wrote down their comments.)|
|Me:||So Chris, it sounds like you want to be left alone and have Amber respect your privacy. And Amber, you want to play with Chris. When he won’t, it hurts your feelings and you want to hurt him back. Does that sound right to both of you?|
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|Me:||So, what can you two do when Amber wants to play but Chris wants privacy?|
|Amber:||We could make a deal! Me: What kind of deal?|
|Chris:||When we feel like hurting we could use words! (He looked at Amber as he stressed this last word.)|
|Me:||(I didn’t want them to start blaming again, so I refocused on solutions.) What else?|
|Chris:||I could go to my room and close my door.|
|Me:||Okay. I’ll add that and “walk away.” (I wrote down their ideas.)|
|Me:||(Reading back their list of ideas.) Okay I have “make a deal, when you feel like hurting use words, go to room, or walk away.” How do you both feel about those ideas? (They nodded their heads in agreement. Since they agreed with all the ideas, I confirmed each child’s willingness to abide by the solutions.) Amber, if you want to play, are you willing to use words to ask Chris? (She said, “Yes.”) And, Chris, if you want to be alone, will you use words to tell her you want privacy?|
|Chris:||I do use words, but she won’t listen!|
|Me:||(I moved back to exploring alternatives.) So what can you do if words don’t work?|
|Chris:||(in a questioning voice) Walk away and go to my room?|
|Me:||That’s right, and Amber, when Chris wants to be alone, what can you do?|
|Amber:||(in an “I know” tone of voice) Go play somewhere else.|
|Me:||(Knowing Chris could play in his room all day just to be alone, I thought we’d better have some time limits on this idea.) Amber, how much time would you be willing to give Chris to be alone when he comes home? (She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know.”) Chris, knowing that Amber has been home alone all day long, what’s the smallest amount of time you need to be alone before you would be willing to play?|
|Me:||I think a four-year-old would have a hard time waiting an hour. If you played with her for a bit, she might be more willing to leave you alone. Would you be willing to settle for 15 minutes, play for a while, then ask for more time alone?|
I’d be willing to help you make a list when we are done here, okay? (She agreed.) And Chris, will you play with Amber if she leaves you alone for a while when you first come home? (He agreed.) Are you both willing to make a deal that when you feel angry and like hurting each other you will use words or walk away? (They agreed in unison.)
8. Encourage them to try the solution for a trial period.
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Property Disputes and Sharing
When we resolve fights over property, someone usually loses. If the property owners win, they are less likely to share because they know they don’t have to. If we force them to share, they resent the other child and the parent. They are less likely to share because it is something the parent is making them do. There are some universal rules about property disputes.
In the following examples, notice how the parent’s responses teach values or suggest options without taking over.
- Personal property: The owner has the right to decide whether to share. Others must ask first. Back up the owner’s decision and teach others to ask first. Acknowledge the non-owner’s disappointment if the owner chooses not to share the item and redirect them to another activity.
A Personal Story. Amber, age 3, took her water toys to the baby pool. I knew if she saw another child playing with her toys, she would think the child was taking her toy home and get very upset. When children asked permission first, she almost always said “Yes.” I saw a little boy playing with one of her toys and said, “That toy belongs to the little redheaded girl over there. I bet if you ask her, she’ll say you can play with it for a while.” He asked her and she said “Yes.” This suggestion usually prevents an unnecessary conflict and teaches other children to ask before using others’ belongings. No parent has ever gotten upset with me when I say this to their child. I am polite, respectful, and encouraging to both children.
- Community property: Whoever has possession first has the right to decide whether to share. Others must ask for a turn instead of grabbing the item. State this rule without actually taking sides, “Janet had it first, so she can decide whether to share it now or tell you when she will give you a turn to play with it.” By offering these two choices, we make it clear that “hogging it” is not one of the options.
In either case, suggest that sharing would be the respectful and kind action, but don’t force the decision.
Steps in responding to property disputes:
Say this last statement as a question. Lecturing, “Well that doesn’t make it okay to . . . ” makes them feel worse. Ask other questions, waiting for a response to each: “So when you’re hurt one day, is it okay to hurt him the next? How does that help? Do you think now that he’s mad at you he might do something to one of your toys later? So when does all this end?” Take them by steps through the logic so they can see the answer on their own and choose more helpful responses.
If we can’t tell who broke the item, the bottom line is, “The ____ got (broken, ripped) because two people were fighting over it instead of using words. One person lost a _____ and the other person lost a chance to use it. What can you do next time to prevent this from happening?” Use children’s poor decisions to help them learn how to make better decisions in the future.
Ownership issues are greatly affected by developmental stages. Children who are three and younger won’t understand ownership, sharing, and taking turns very well or follow-through consistently. We need to repeat ourselves often and consistently. We can help them move through these difficult stages by carefully choosing the messages we’re sending and skills we’re teaching. As they logically understand the concepts, they will master the skills. By age four, children better understand sharing.
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Beyond age, however, skills have a greater impact on property disputes. We could have a 15-year-old who has no respect for property owners’ rights and a 3-year-old who is verbal enough to ask permission. It depends on their life experience and what they have been taught. When we intervene, we want to teach these skills, so we can eventually get to the point of saying, “Gee, I bet if you two put your heads together you can come up with a plan that is respectful and fair to both of you”—and they will!
Territory issues involve people’s physical space and their right to have others respect it. Handle these issues using the same steps described for property disputes and personal space.
If children share a room, it can be particularly difficult to reach agreements that are respectful to both children. It is important to make sure each child has some personal space in the room—an area that belongs only to that child to have some privacy or personal space. Allow them to decorate or use this personal territory as they choose, as long as their choices don’t interfere with others’ rights or personal space. Let each child choose another location, besides the room they share, where they can go if they want privacy or space. Then encourage others to respect the child’s need to be alone when he or she is in that space. Crowded quarters are never ideal; just try to work out the best possible solution.
- Children tattle when they are trying to get another child in trouble or to get unnecessary attention from the parent.
- Children tell an adult when another child is doing something that is dangerous or someone is hurt and an adult needs to know.
A Graduate’s Story. We were late for the bus and I ran into the house to get something while the kids waited at the curb. When I came out, T.J. said, “Mommy, Tony stepped on my foot!” I said, “Gosh! I bet that hurt!” He said, “Yeah,” with a shocked look on his face, because he’s not used to my acknowledging his feelings. I said “I hope you have a better day at school!” He looked back at me like I was an alien mother and then called out, “Love you mom!” I was shocked! He rarely says this, ‘cause it’s not cool anymore. That’s when I realized that sometimes just acknowledging their feelings is enough and I don’t have to go any further trying to solve the problem for them.
Tattling can destroy sibling and parent/child relationships, so parents need to decide if learning the truth is important enough to undermine the siblings’ loyalty to each other. Make it clear that children can bring complaints to you but you will not take sides. We never know if the version we hear is accurate and could make an unfair decision. Also, don’t play the “who did it” game. What is important is that the two of them resolve it respectfully. You can say, “I don’t listen to tattling” or “I can see you’re (feeling) about (event). What do you think you can do about it?” Don’t bite the bait—put the ball back in the child’s court.
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Anyone in a relationship, living in the same space, will have petty arguments now and then. We’ve all had this experience with a spouse or friend. To us, children’s issues seem petty because they are issues we’ve grown out of, but to our children, these issues are very important. They have not yet resolved the issue nor learned and refined their verbal negotiation skills. Their bickering doesn’t always sound like negotiation, just a round robin disagreement. As long as no one is getting physically or emotionally hurt, allow them time to work things out on their own.
If one sibling responds respectfully and assertively and the other doesn’t, use descriptive encouragement to notice the child using respectful words. Restate your expectation that family members treat each other with respect. Offer the other child the choice of acting respectfully or leaving. If you are in the car, the respectful child can move to the front seat. Don’t move the disrespectful child to this honorary position. If changing seats is not an option, the child can remain silent rather than move. It’s like the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
If we do get involved, we want to mediate in a way that teaches children the basics of respectful communication (the universal PASRR formula and problem-solving steps): Listen to the other person’s feelings and opinions before you offer yours. State your feelings and opinions respectfully. Brainstorm ideas for what you can each do differently. Make an agreement for how you will both handle the situation in the future.
When we are not available to mediate, children need to know the following nonviolent options for resolving conflicts with siblings or peers:
Teasing is mean-spirited and hurtful. It often involves put-downs or name-calling.
To tell the difference between bickering and teasing, ask yourself, “Are they dealing with the issue or just being hurtful?” Comment if they start calling each other names or are disrespectful. We can do this with one sentence, “I hear name-calling” or “Use respectful words.” They know we are listening but often appreciate the fact that we didn’t take over or lecture.
If children are being teased by a sibling or peer, acknowledge their hurt feelings. It helps to explain the teaser’s motive. There are several reasons children tease:
Sometimes there is a reason the child is being teased. If the child has a loud voice and is very talkative, they might invite the name “Big Mouth.” If children have a personality trait that might offend others, be cautious pointing it out. Describe the behavior in general terms. “When someone interrupts others, people can get angry and not want to be around that person. Do you think there are ever times you might do this?” We might know the child does this, but we want to word the statement carefully so the
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child doesn’t feel like we are joining the crowd. If children aren’t doing anything to bring on the teasing, they can use one of the ideas in the list of nonviolent options in the bickering section or the bully/victim section below.
- Teach children the difference between roughhousing and real fighting.
- Have children agree on a code word like “Ouch” “Stop” “Uncle” or “Pickles” that means, “I’m not having fun anymore” or “I’m getting hurt.” Both children must agree to stop if either child says the code word. If one or both children still need to get out their energy, brainstorm less hurtful ways.
- If you are unsure whether they are really fighting, ask, “Are you both having fun?” or “Are you playing or fighting?” To roughhouse, both children must agree to play fair and safe.
Bullies and Victims
The most common roles that children adopt, especially siblings, are the bully and victim roles. When bullying starts, try this time-tested (and parent-tested) process2 :
Teach children to carry themselves confidently and walk with bold steps. They don’t have to walk like pompous bullies themselves, but they want to send the message that “I can take care of myself. Don’t mess with me.”
Parents often tell victims to ignore bullies. Children, however, often think this means they should be passive, which creates a more wimpy attitude. To ignore effectively, they need to use strong body language. Stand up straight and look the person in the nose (it’s too scary to look them in the eyes), smile, shrug the shoulders and walk (or run) away. This response tells bullies, “What you said didn’t affect me in the least. You are not worth my time.” Children don’t have to say this, their attitude says it for them.
It is also helpful for victims to keep their distance from bullies by avoiding situations that will bring them into unnecessary contact with the bully. If they can’t avoid the bully, they could stay in a group of friends or in view of (but not clinging to) an adult, since the bully is less likely to pick on them.
Most children spend so much time defending or explaining themselves that they only reinforce the power of bullies’ words. If they insult bullies, the bullies get ticked off more and seek revenge. Instead, children can use self-directed humor. For example, if someone calls them a chicken, they can pretend to be a chicken. This tells bullies they know the comment is ridiculous. Others who are watching will usually laugh with the “victims” and join their side.
Victims can also exaggerate their responses, which also uses humor. If the bully says, “Your Mama wears army boots” the victim can add, “Yeah! And she wears a helmet and wakes me up with a reveille each morning.” This tactic not only defuses, but helps victims take control of the situation.
If children have time to plan ahead, they can think of nice, honest things to say to the bully. They don’t want to kiss up to bullies, which keeps bullies in power. They can, however, say sincere, true,
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flattering statements. “That was a great touchdown you made at the game last night. You really saved the day!”
Physical defense moves
These are temporary, self-protective moves that buy time for victims to either get away or use verbal conflict resolution skills. These moves are not aggressive, but will protect children in nonviolent ways. It is better to teach children these skills instead of encouraging them to return punches. This usually escalates the revenge cycle and sends the message that violence is okay.
If you live in a high crime area or there’s a lot of gang harassment, it is tempting to teach violent responses. In this day and age, you never know who might have a hidden weapon. Violence needs to be a last resort, used only to defend ourselves, when leaving the scene and other options are impossible, or in life and death situations.
We may have to get involved, after trying these other responses first. We can volunteer on the school playground or wherever bullies usually attack. Other adults might not believe our children, but if we say we witnessed it, they are more likely to take our concerns seriously.
A Personal Story. When Chris was in the fourth grade, he and his friend, a fifth-grader, had a problem with a bully on the bus—a second-grade girl. The bus driver would not believe their complaints of her kicking, taunting, and tripping them as they walked through the bus, because she was a younger girl. When they came home from school, they’d tell me what happened, and we’d do problem solving. Eventually, they tried every idea the three of us had. I was considering writing a letter when I happened to be in my car behind the bus one day and witnessed her behavior first-hand. In my letter to the transportation director, I simply described the girl’s behavior and the boys’ attempts to resolve the problem respectfully. I didn’t tell the director what to do, but wanted him to be aware of the problem. I only mentioned my eyewitness account at the end as a side-note. The bus driver changed the seating arrangement—moving the boys to the front of the bus instead of the bully.
Whenever possible, we want our intervention to empower victims and teach bullies better ways to handle conflicts. This helps free them both from unhelpful roles and boost their self-esteem and skills. Since victims feel incapable and helpless, assertiveness skills help them feel more capable. Since bullies are often stuck in a negative role, nonviolent alternatives give them a way out.
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